By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Emmett Willson earned a piece of history and the Montana State University-Northern wrestling team earned plenty of respect in the NAIA wrestling world.
Willson, a senior from Shepherd, was the first NAIA wrestler to ever capture an individual title at the Cliff Keen Invitational wrestling tournament in Las Vegas this past weekend.
Willson, who finished third last year, won five consecutive matches, including a thrilling a 4-2 overtime win over Ryan Bader of Arizona State in the finals to capture the 197-pound individual title.
"Coaches from Ohio State and Michigan and several others complimented Emmett about how hard he goes and intense he is," said head coach David Ray. "It's a big accomplishment and honor to be the first NAIA wrestler to win a title."
Willson opened the tourney with a close 2-0 win over Ralph Garcia of Cal Poly and exploded for an 18-5 win over defending NCAA Division II champ Tim Boldt of South Dakota State. Willson then defeated J.D. Bergman of Ohio State 9-4 in the quarterfinals and NCAA 184-pound champion B.J. Padden of Nebraska, 6-5 in the semifinals.
"Emmett's matches were close because the pressure and stress of wrestling good competition," Ray said. "I think he might have respected his opponents too much and it started to wear him out mentally and that's what kept the matches close. He was the better wrestler in every match."
Willson's perceived status as the underdog made him the crowd favorite during the championship match, which is something that surprised Ray a little.
"It was the loudest match of the finals," Ray said. "I thought since Arizona State is closer they would be cheering for Bader, but the crowd was chanting Emmett's name."
Northern also had another placer in senior Caleb Schaeffer at 133 pounds. Schaeffer finished the tournament with a 4-3 record, losing to Matt Keller of Nebraska 12-6 to finish eighth.
"Caleb was right there," Ray said. "He lost a couple matches that he could have won, but this is going to give him so much confidence. When you place eighth out of 45 wrestlers, 35 of which are Division I, you have to build confidence."
Northern had only two other wrestlers win matches. Aaron Jensen picked up a 3-2 decision over Tanner Cowan of Utah Valley State and a win by default over Brody Barrios of Cal Poly. Senior Kyle Fisher won his first wrestleback with an 11-3 major decision over Ben Ericks of South Dakota State.
The Lights finished in 18th place out of 54 teams.
"Collectively as a team, we didn't do as well as I hoped," Ray said. "But I was really excited to have two wrestlers place, including an individual title."
But the feeling was eased with his team's performance on Thursday night in Las Vegas as the Lights improved their dual record to 7-0 with wins over NCAA Division II Central Washington and defending NAIA national champion Missouri Valley College.
Northern cruised past Central Washington 36-6, surrendering just six points on a forfeit and not losing a match.
Schaeffer pinned Brian Caraway to get the Lights rolling while Stryder Davis, Mazi Burke and Willson picked up major decision.
"We did have some tough matches against Central Washington," Ray said. "We looked a little tight, but it turned out to be a good warmup for Missouri Valley."
Going into the match, Ray figured at worst the Lights would split the matches 5-5, which is exactly how it played out. However, pins from Schaeffer and Willson and major decisions by Davis and Burke gave Northern a 24-19 win.
After forfeiting the 125-pound match, Schaeffer rallied from a 7-1 deficit to pin Talon Vickers to even the team score at 6-6. MVC won the next two matches, but Davis got the Lights back on the board with a 12-3 major decision over Darian Terry. Northern lost two more matches, including a major decision at 165, leaving the Lights trailing 19-10. However, Fisher defeated Mario Thomas 9-2 and Mazi Burke won by technical fall 16-0 over Justin Bicandi that brogught the Lights within one at 19-18 going into Willson's match at heavyweight.
"I told Emmett all we needed was a win, not a pin before the match," Ray said. "He looked back at me with that look of his and I knew he was going for the pin which is exactly what he did."
Willson drug Nuru back onto the mat as he was trying to get out of bounds to get the pin.
"That was pretty impressive," Ray said. "Emmett barely had both feet in bounds and he just forced him back in bounds for the pin."
The win leaves Northern undefeated in duals on the season and sends a message to several NAIA schools that the Lights will be right there at the NAIA national tournament.
"It's a pretty good win," Ray said. "And Missouri Valley knows that will only be stronger next semester."
Northern will be at home on Saturday to host junior college power Northwest College at 7 p.m.
MSUN def. Central Washington 36-6
125 - John Garcia, CWU win by forfeit; 133 - Caleb Schaeffer, MSUN pinned Brian Caraway 1:02; 141 - Chris Smith, MSUN dec. Brett Wagner 6-3; 149 - Anthony Haukenberry, MSUN dec. Jeff Nimrick 8-6; 157 - Stryder Davis, MSUN maj. dec. Josh Wiebanga 19-7; 165 - Aaron Jensen, MSUN dec. Steve Hadsel 8-6; 174 - David Waters, MSUN dec. Nick Roberts 14-9; 184 - Kyle Fisher, MSUN win by forfeit; 197 - Mazi Burke, MSUN maj. dec. C.D. Hazen 14-5; HWT - Emmett Willson, MSUN maj. dec. Luke Roberts 18-6.
MSUN def. Missouri Valley College 24-19
125 - Talon Vickers, MVC win by forfeit; 133 - Caleb Schaeffer, MSUN pinned Tarl Vickers, MVC 4:31; 141 - Tyson Biddle, MVC dec. Chris Smith 15-8; 149 - Josh Pulsifer, MVC dec. Anthony Haukenberry 6-3; 157 - Stryder Davis, MSUN dec. Darian Terry 12-3; 165 - Drew Dickerson, MVC maj. dec. Aaron Jensen 17-6; 171 - Kyle Fisher, MSUN dec. Mario Thomas 9-2; 197 - Mazi Burke, MSUN win by tech. fall Justin Bicandi 16-0; HWT - Emmett Willson, MSUN pinned Adam Nuru 1:05.